Big Red Fez

Big Red Fez by Seth Godin. Published 2001 by Do You Zoom, Inc.

Review (Book)

Seth Godin lays out some tips and tricks to getting commercial websites more effective. This is a book meant to be read by executives with little time on their hands. It is a fast read (I had it done in about twenty minutes) and has plenty of illustrations. Too bad it never really takes its own advice.

Where's the Banana, Seth?

I am assuming the title of the book, accompanied by the large fez (yes, red) on the cover is meant to be an allusion to the basic concept of the book: hook customers quick and then keep them hooked. The cover gets your attention from across the room, especially if it is next to some HTML guide by O'Reilley and a CSS guide from well, someone else (I know this is unprofessional, but I believe that every other computer press just went out of my head). If it is put in business, I don't know if the cover will attract.

It was in the computer section when I saw it, so I got it.

I am currently working through setting up a website for The Book Gallery (I have a long way to go) and this seemed like it would be at least a few ideas that I could bounce around. Which it was. Godin lays out a few classic mistakes that I will avoid, and gives some tips that I will take to heart.

The problem is that he rarely follows his own advice. Once you get into the book, the layout becomes a jumble of ideas that do not quite flow into one another. There are no sections. There are no section headers. To read this book, you have to read through it from front to back. Furthermore, though the book is obviously aimed at those people who will never touch anything like HTML, SQL, CSS or Active Server Content; it still could have benefitted from taking a little more technical of an approach. Don't just tell me that the upper left portion of the page is the most valuable space, give me a little bit of background to this. Tell me how other pages are taken. What is the effect of white background versus a light background versus a dark background? How large is too large?

Godin's muse seems to be gut reactions to websites that he visits (I have no idea how regularly). If a website's text seems too small, or too vague, he points it out. Too often, though, this advice strikes me as written by a man who has seen said website once or twice and just goes with his first instinct. I know this is the point of the book, but all this tells me is how to design a website that I might sell something to Seth Godin with. This gives me no good market research on which to set up a good, well-rounded business.

The end result is a hit-or-miss concept. While his attacks on Epson's and Kinko's problematic approach to "What's the Price?" is dead on, and he makes a real good point about why its weird that Hotmail and Yahoo! (he mentions Yahoo!, specifically) make us click twice to get to our inbox (yay, for GMAIL!); his odd hatred of drop down menus is, well, odd. And he calls out one furniture company's beautiful website because its menu that includes products and search also includes other information.

At the Heart of the Problem

I think Seth Godin's problem stems from two sources. First of all is this "How did Seth take it?" approach the book rotates on. I only care about his opinion on website design as much as it reflects the whole and Godin gives very little good evidence to back this up. He praises (which I love, as well) yet fails to acknowledge the problems that people using it (how quickly can you find customer support phone numbers? how come some books have an obviously wrong description? how can I separate more legitimate reviews from those linked to the books production team (this last one Amazon has worked on)?) He even credits with setting the basis for what people are looking for in a commercial website. While is successful (I won't say wildly), is this because of the sheer number of goods they carry, or because of their website design?

Though I agree with his premise that you have to take advantage of gut reaction, I want something more like evidence before I will establish a paradigm around it. And if you leave me with the instructions "try it out for yourself", then that doesn't do much for me.

His second main fault is that he doesn't seem to understand the fact that different companies are going to have different needs. Not every one of them is going to feel the need to rope customers into the net equivalent of an impulse buy. I know the man is infinitely more experienced than I am at website design and marketing, but he seems to be the perfect example of the "egospace" way of world building. He thinks of things in one way, and doesn't allow much for others to deviate.

I'll leave his emphasis on text over style and media up for grabs. I happen to agree, but it seems the web is leaving the two of us behind.

Grain of Salt

I would say take this with a grain of salt. I am sure a lot of his stuff has to be tried and tested, but he gives no good indication of this. It is a book of his opinion, as respected as it might be. Furthermore, he has some tastes that seem to be outside the standard, at least the standard I see prominent, now.

There are some good pointers to be found, but you probably could have used that time to read a better book on the same thing. Its nearly complete lack of more than just his pointers means this book is as much an autobiography as a web design guide.

I am putting this one midstack.

My score: 49.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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